GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — Twenty years after he was arrested for the murders of a Camden County couple killed in their small, rural church, Dennis Perry is now a free man. He walked out of prison into the arms of his wife Thursday afternoon.
"Two years ago I told my wife I was going to pray myself out of here, and that's what I done," Dennis Perry said. "I asked God for some help, and he sent me 12 disciples. Twelve people from your law firm," he said thanking his attorneys with King and Spalding and the Georgia Innocence Project.
A judge ordered Dennis Perry to be released on his own recognizance just days after overturning his conviction based on new DNA evidence that points to a different suspect being at the crime scene.
Dennis Perry’s release stipulations include having no contact with victims, family of victims or GBI witnesses. He is to avoid Rising Daughter Baptist Church and not have firearms or ammunition in his possession.
His wife was elated to be able to take her husband home and planned to cook him his favorite meal.
"When he gets in that car, he's going to have some boiled peanuts and a glass of sweet tea. When he gets to the house he's going to have some rice, tomatoes, sausage and sweet tea and biscuits and a Boston cream pie. That's his favorite," Brenda Perry said.
For 15 years the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain remained unsolved, but in 2000 Dennis Perry was arrested after the case was reexamined. In 2003, he was convicted of the murders and sentenced to two life sentences. Dennis Perry agreed not to appeal his two life sentences in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. He has always maintained his innocence.
"It feels good to be free," Dennis Perry said. "It feels fantastic to be free. I have a long life ahead of me."
No physical evidence linked Dennis Perry to the crime scene, so the state built its case largely around the testimony of a now-deceased Camden County woman, who the jury and defense were not told was interested in, and would later receive, a large reward. She testified Dennis Perry, who had dated her daughter around the time of the murders, told her was going to kill a black man who didn't let him borrow money.
"Today is the beginning of righting a 20 year wrong," Dennis Perry's cousin, Suzanne Baugh said.
Dennis Perry’s legal team says new DNA evidence proves he is not the killer. In April, his team filed an Extraordinary Motion for a New Trial Based on New DNA Evidence. In May the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reopened the Swain murder case. Last week Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett granted Dennis Perry a new trial.
“There was a pair of unique eyeglasses recovered from the scene that were believed by investigators to have belonged to the killer, which had two hairs stuck in one of the hinges," Scarlett wrote in his order granting Dennis Perry a new trial. "Mitochondrial DNA testing conducted on the glasses prior to Dennis Perry’s trial in 2003 excluded him as a possible contributor to the hairs. All evidence at trial was circumstantial in nature."
The court found that new DNA evidence is so material that, had it been introduced at his trial, it probably would have produced a different verdict.
“The new DNA evidence reliably links another suspect, Erik Sparre, to the key piece of physical evidence found at the crime scene: a pair of unique eyeglasses that investigators long believed to the killer,” Scarlett wrote.
Sparre has not been charged in the case. The GBI's investigation is ongoing, and no new arrests have been made.
"You don't have to find someone else guilty to realize that Perry is innocent, so we think the DA should dismiss all of the charges against Mr. Perry," Page Pate, a Georgia Innocence Project Board Member said. "We believe he would have never been charged had to DA had the DNA evidence that we've now uncovered in this case, so dismiss against him completely. There should be no trial of Dennis Perry at any time for these charges."
The District Attorney's Office told First Coast News its waiting for the results of the GBI investigation into the Swain murder case before deciding how to proceed.
Statement from Georgia Innocence Project:
"We are grateful that the Court has ordered Dennis Perry’s release, and we are thrilled to welcome Dennis Perry home to his family after twenty years spent wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. It does not escape our attention, however, that Dennis is not yet truly free despite compelling evidence of innocence on top of clear constitutional violations. We hope that the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office expeditiously decides to demonstrate accountability and do the right thing. We hope that Dennis Perry’s nightmare will soon be over and that everyone impacted by this tragic and unjust case can begin the process of healing and recovery."